Highland Grill's Joan Ida: Chef Chat, part 3

Executive Chef Joan Ida of the Highland Grill

Executive Chef Joan Ida of the Highland Grill

In today's wrap-up of our interview with Joan Ida, executive chef at Highland Grill, Ida talks about her favorite cookbooks, reminisces about her grandmother's pancakes and explains how joining the kitchen staff at Goodfellow's, her first job, "was walking into the locker room." (Here's parts 1 and 2 of the interview.)


What is your favorite dish to cook at home? My Chinese doctor from Shanghai has given me a list of foods that are good for me. When I do cook at home, like on weekends, it's generally something Asian, mostly Chinese.

What is your favorite Twin Cities restaurant other than your own? I hate to say it. The last couple years I eat mostly on University Avenue, mostly Vietnamese places, Mandarin Kitchen. That's pretty much where I gravitate to.

Where do you eat on your birthday? I usually end up at Manny's [Steakhouse].

What is your favorite restaurant in America? Daniel. He is a gracious host. The food is honest and lovely, even though he is mostly traditional. When I want a good, lip-smacking meal, I go to Daniel. He's always come out and presented me with each course.

A friend of mine had a birthday party there, a truffle dinner. We were in one of the little private rooms in the corner so the truffle would really come up. They just kept shaving truffle over everything they served. It was the most heady meal I think I've ever had.

What are the qualities you require in kitchen staff? They have to realize that the guest is most important. Without the guests, we don't have jobs. The most important thing is to be gracious to your guest at all costs. I don't like saying no.

What has been your weirdest customer request? Someone wanted me to make a wedding cake for them of carrot cake with chocolate frosting. I just thought no, I can't do that. We morphed it into, I think, half of it had cream cheese frosting with a layer of chocolate frosting in the middle just to keep that person pacified.

What is your favorite knife or kitchen tool? A Japanese sharkskin grater. It's just a piece of sharkskin on a piece of wood. It's traveled with me everywhere. It's basically for grating ginger and wasabi. It makes a really smooth puree. I got it at the night market in Hong Kong on Temple Street. It's a street market that starts at 9 p.m. and goes until like 3 a.m.

What is different about being a woman in a restaurant kitchen? When I started out at Goodfellow's, I was the only girl in a kitchen in town. Brenda [Langton] and Lucia [Watson] had their own places already, but as far as women in the kitchen, it was walking into the locker room. A lot has changed now that more women are in the business. Back then it was very, very difficult.

What about being a woman and executive chef? What are your priorities? Do you want to have babies and be a mom? Or do you want this, your employees, to be your family? Basically, it's one or the other. God, if you could do both of them, more power to you, but it's a difficult thing. You end up making a choice. Something has to suffer when you're climbing up to become a chef. If you are more driven to be the mom, when your kids grow up a little bit you can stick out the hours it takes to do the job.

If I had had children while I've been growing this career, they would have starved in a closet somewhere. I thought of having children at one point, but I knew that that's not where my focus was. You can't just let them run around your house like cats. So I have cats.

What do you think of the whole celebrity chef phenomenon? We cook. We feed people. We feed people in creative, innovative ways. Some people look at it as art or craft. Some people look at it as putting food on your own table. Whatever it is, a restaurant is a place to be comforted, entertained, do business, but at the end result it's food. As far as the whole package goes, if you do it right, you're going to be successful at it.

By no means do I cook with ego or have expectations that I should be treated differently than someone else because of what I've done. And dammit, I've spent my days in the dish pit. I've worked with a lot of ego, whether it's the people above me or the people below me that I've been working with. From what I've learned of ego and why I don't cook with it, it comes down to when you become more important than the food. There's a serious issue. When your behavior changes because of who you think you are, you've got a problem.

What are your favorite cookbooks? When I was in Paris I purchased a set of Pierre Hermé books, some of the most expensive, beautiful books I've ever been able to get my hands on. Freakishly expensive, but I get a lot out of them and they're beautiful. Any time I want to do something classic, I reference those pastry books.

There's a Guy Savoy book that I picked up at Books for Cooks in London, which I've never seen in print anywhere else. It's a great book on roasting.

And then the Time Life series, I want to say the Good Cook. It's a 27-book series from the 70s and 80s, so you've got to go to second-hand bookstores to find them. The only one I'm missing is the offal book.

What is your best culinary tip for a home cook? Recipes aren't Bibles. If you don't have the broccoli, you can substitute something else and not ditch the entire idea because you don't have one ingredient.

If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? If I could eat with them, [it would be] the model who sat for the Mona Lisa. I want to know that person; I want to know who that person is. I mean, at this point, we don't even know if it's a man or a woman.

Who would you want to cook for you? I would love my grandmother to cook for me. When I was little growing up, she made pancakes in a half-inch of bacon and butter fat. They had that crispy greasy edge on them. You'd pour syrup over them, and it would just absorb into them. I mean, heart disease at an early age. Those pancakes will live with me for the rest of my life. And if I could have them again the way she made them, I'd do it.

What would you do for a living if you could not be a chef? I originally wanted to be a jockey, but I'm six feet tall. I wanted to study sharks at one point. That would be fun to go back to. But more so, yeah, professional tourist.

What are your future plans for the restaurant? To continue on this plan that I've started out with, refining what I'm doing with the features program and making this become real chef-driven. I'm not out to redefine the world of food by any means, but to have this little place build in business and to make it be a cornerstone of this neighborhood is a good thing and a good way to go. Then to expand into the feature program at the grills.

I'm perfectly happy doing this. I have a life and I'm able to go out and do things over than work now. That is so important to me. I've wanted this for so long.

What is in the future for you? I know I'm not one to own my own place. I don't want to do that. I'm really happy with Blue Plate. They're an amazing bunch of people. I don't mind now getting up at 5:30 a.m., because I know work is always going to be a good day. I will continue to work with Blue Plate and do what I'm doing as long as they'll have me.

And for myself, travel. Maybe I will be that professional tourist at some point in my life, when I grow up.